By Rachel Chason and Rael Ombuor 8 Dec 2021, at 5:00 a.m. EST

NAIROBI — They watched friends die in the mountains of Tigray. They survived imprisonment. They paid bribes and suffered injuries as they fled the civil war devastating Ethiopia.

When the four Tigrayan asylum seekers made it to Nairobi in March, at first they felt safe. Living in a one-room apartment more than 1,000 miles from the fighting, the friends — three medical workers and one journalist — said they were reassured to be in Kenya, a democracy and one of the region’s most stable countries.

But it was not long before their sense of security dissipated. Rumors abounded about intelligence officers surveilling Tigrayans on behalf of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

Then, late last month, in an incident that sparked an outcry in Kenya and attracted international attention, two men dragged a prominent businessman of Tigrayan descent out of his Bentley and into a Subaru as he sat in Nairobi traffic. In a widely shared video, a traffic officer appeared to be holding the door of Samson Teklemichael’s car open to assist his captors. Teklemichael could be heard pleading for bystanders to record his capture.

More than two weeks after Teklemichael was taken, it is not clear who was responsible or what their motivation was, said Kenya police spokesman Bruno Isohi Shioso. Police are still investigating, he said, and seeking tips from the public.

Mulugeta, one of the four Tigrayan friends living in Nairobi, was so shaken that he did not leave the apartment for two days.

“I felt free,” he said. “But now my hope is lost.”

For more than a year, Ethiopia has been engulfed in a civil war that has claimed thousands of lives and put hundreds of thousands at risk of famine. The fighting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government forces and rebels led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began as a political power struggle and is now increasingly driven by ethnic rivalries.

Human rights groups warn that Teklemichael’s disappearance is an ominous indicator of the long reach of Abiy, who just two years ago won the Nobel Peace Prize. He has referred to leaders of the TPLF, which dominated the country’s politics for three decades and is resented by many non-Tigrayan Ethiopians, as “cancer” and “weeds.”

Abiy spokeswoman Billene Seyoum declined to comment for this article. Another government spokesman, Legesse Tulu, did not respond to requests for comment.

Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said during a news conference that he would look into the alleged abduction, adding that reports of police in Addis Ababa going door to door arresting Tigrayans were alarming. The United States, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain on Tuesday condemned reports of mass detentions of Tigrayans by the Ethiopian government, saying arrests without charges “likely constitute violations of international law and must cease immediately.”

“The brazen daylight abduction of Mr. Teklemichael on a busy Nairobi street has left many people shaken,” said Irũngũ Houghton, executive director of Amnesty International Kenya. “The collapse of the rule of law that we have seen in Addis Ababa, with thousands of Tigrayans being arrested on the streets, that chaos, that lawlessness, must not be allowed to show up in Kenya.”

Teklemichael’s wife, Milen Haleform Mezgebo, said in an interview that she had not heard from her husband since he was taken. Fearing for the safety of their three children, she pulled them out of school.

Mulugeta and his three friends limit their interactions with new people. When they see other Ethiopians on the street, they wonder if they are spies. Citing security concerns, they spoke on the condition that they be identified only by their second names.

The men are part of what analysts say is likely a large network of Tigrayans living illegally in Nairobi, unrecognized by the Kenyan government or UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. There were only 168 refugees from Tigray officially registered in Kenya in 2020 and 2021, said UNHCR spokeswoman Eujin Byun, and they have been transferred to Kakuma, one of Kenya’s refugee camps, per the government’s policy. The pandemic has contributed to a backlog of processing requests, Byun said.

Ethiopian asylum seekers must come through Kakuma to complete the refugee registration process, said Joseph Kotolo, Kenya’s head of refugee status determination. But the men in Nairobi said they worry about their health and safety at Kakuma, where nearly 200,000 people live in often bleak conditions. They believe the thousands of Ethiopians living there could pose a threat, although spokespeople for UNHCR and Kenya’s refugee agency said they had not heard reports of any attacks targeting Tigrayans at Kakuma.

The four men acknowledged, though, that their legal limbo contributes to their fear. They have repeatedly called a U.N. hotline, trying to secure status as legal refugees.

Teklemichael was “a businessman and a legal person who had been living in Kenya for a long time,” Mulugeta said. “I am not a businessperson. I am not a legal person. I have no money. … If he was abducted, what about us?”

Getting out

After fighting broke out in November 2020 in Ethiopia’s mountainous north, each of the men experienced a different version of the terror that forced them to leave.

Mulugeta, who was in Addis Ababa, said he was repeatedly punched by a police officer and dragged to a makeshift prison, where he was detained for 40 days.

Hailay and Kahsay, who worked together in the Tigray region’s health department, said they watched bombs kill two pharmacist colleagues in the hills of Abiy Addi in December. Hailay, 28, and Kahsay, 26, tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the men, who had been walking dozens of feet ahead of them. There was no time to bury the bodies, they said, because more bombs were coming. They alleged that the bombs were dropped by the Ethiopian government.

Teklemariam, 27, a childhood friend of Hailay’s, said he ran from Eritrean soldiers who repeatedly shot at him after taking control of his hometown, Enticho. Soldiers looted his family’s farm, he said, taking grain, shoes, clothes and cooking supplies.

When he traveled to Tigray’s capital last winter to pick up his paycheck, he called Hailay. With Kahsay, they devised a plan.

“The only choice,” Teklemariam said, “was to escape from that horror.”

Teklemariam, 27, walks through a door in his Nairobi neighborhood. (Rachel Chason/The Washington Post)

The deterioration of Africa’s second-most-populous country has been staggering. Once heralded for pursing democratic reforms and brokering peace deals in the region, Prime Minister Abiy is leading the battle on the front lines. The United Nations predicts hundreds of thousands of refugees will flee.

Traveling by bus through Ethiopia, Hailay, Kahsay and Teklemariam were stopped near the border by an official at a checkpoint. He asked for their identification cards and demanded to know where they were coming from, they said. Not wanting to lie, they told him Tigray’s capital. Then he took them to a small, bug-infested house where they estimated about 50 men were being held as prisoners.

For four days, the men said, they were beaten by guards who demanded money they did not have.

Eventually, Hailay reached a friend who persuaded the officials to release them.

With money gathered from friends, they paid smugglers to get them to Nairobi. The nearly 500-mile journey took a week by foot, motorbike and van. They ate only a handful of times, drank river water and traveled mostly at night to avoid detection. At one point, the smugglers insisted that they cross a crocodile-infested river.

Mulugeta, whom they met on the journey, became like an older brother.

When Mulugeta, 35, fainted in the heat at one point and then badly burned his leg in falling off a motorbike at another, they helped care for him. And when Mulugeta learned that his friends in Nairobi had offered to pay for a one-room apartment, he offered to share it.

‘We are not secure here’

Teklemariam walked through Nairobi’s bustling streets one October evening, collecting the ingredients needed for dinner. He bought cow meat from the butcher around the corner and injera — a spongy bread that is a staple of Ethiopian cooking — from a woman who enveloped him in a hug.

He fist-bumped a gaggle of children on the way out.

“Nice Ethiopians,” he said, explaining that the family that owned the store was from the Amhara region, which has long had tense relations with Tigray. But they had welcomed him and his friends.

Back in the room, the three other men were carefully weaving around one another in the corner that serves as a kitchen, chopping onions and chile peppers, starting the gas burner on which the meat stew would be cooked, and arranging stools and sleeping pads around the makeshift table.

Since arriving in March, each has had his own struggles.

When the TPLF advanced in November, Teklemariam cheered. But rounds of government airstrikes in Tigray that were reported to have killed civilians muted his excitement. He guessed that any TPLF gains would be followed by retaliatory strikes. He feared for his family, from whom he had not heard in months because of a government communications blackout.

“Many Tigrayans are in a blue mood at this moment,” said Teklemariam, who said he was too traumatized to watch footage of the strikes. “Many people have become silent.”

Their current situation, the men said, is not sustainable. Unable to work, they rely on the generosity of Nairobi’s Tigrayan community. They eat only two meals a day and have started buying pasta and ugali, a stiff flour porridge, because it is cheaper than injera.

Their six-month passes acknowledging them as asylum seekers expired in October. They said their calls to the U.N. hotline have been brushed off.

Teklemariam emerged from an interview with Kenya’s refugee agency in November in tears. An official told him, he said, to report to Kakuma or go back to his country.

Friends have said the only other way to get the paperwork needed to be in Nairobi legally is to pay bribes. But they do not have the money.

They now hope to get even farther away, maybe to the United States or Europe.

What they know for now, Teklemariam said, is this: “We are not secure here.”

By Lilay

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